Does the Eastern Orthodox Church Allow Cremation?

The Orthodox Church bans cremation.
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Cremation -- the practice of burning the body after death -- is considered inconsistent with Orthodox doctrine. The Orthodox Church looks to the origins of Christianity and early burial practices among the faithful in this position. The religion’s understanding of the nature of the body as well as anticipation of bodily resurrection further strengthens the ban on cremation.

1 Historical Practice

The earliest Christians adopted several practices to distinguish themselves from their pagan neighbors, including burial of their dead. The Romans of this time, believing bodily death to be the end of the soul’s life as well, symbolized this by cremating their dead. Revered fourth-century archbishop St. Basil decreed, "When there does not exist a written law, one ought to preserve the customs and usages." The Eastern Orthodox Church uses this ruling to support the practice of Christian burial as based on tradition.

2 Reverence for the Body

Orthodox Christians revere the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit in accordance with Scripture. The body is a creation of and gift from God, and any act that deliberately defiles it -- like cremation -- is abhorrent to the Orthodox faith. Unlike some traditions that embrace creation because they view the body as a temporary and inconvenient home for the soul (such as Buddhism), Orthodox doctrine maintains that the body is just as valuable as the soul. A deep respect for the human body underlies the prohibition of cremation in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

3 Anticipation of Resurrection

The body is not only important for this lifetime, according to Eastern Orthodox tradition. Adherents believe that when all are resurrected one day, they will be resurrected in their physical bodies, as was Jesus Christ, according to Scripture. Since the body of Christ was buried following His crucifixion, not cremated, so do Orthodox Christians require burial of the body as a part of following the example set by Christ.

4 Exceptional Circumstances

In certain circumstances that necessitate cremation, the Orthodox faith does not condemn those who must practice it. For example, cremation is legally required in some municipalities in Japan where burial is considered unsanitary. An Orthodox Christian living in one of these cities can be cremated in accordance with local law. Compulsory cremation in the case of an epidemic is also acceptable to Orthodox authorities.

Kelly Tracy is a copywriter and educator based in Savannah, Ga. She holds an M.A. in applied linguistics and a B.A. in mass communication. Tracy has been writing professionally since 1998 and teaching English to international students since 2002.